Note: This is a version of my post, “What to Say to Those in Grief [Extended Version].” -Dave
It can be terribly difficult – scary, even – to know what to say to those in grief, because this requires taking a serious look at death. Sometimes, words simply won’t come. Silence is not an ideal approach to comforting someone in grief, but it is an improvement over catchwords that might be uttered more for one’s own convenience than for truly expressing sympathy.
Yet there is help: there are things you can say to those in grief that might be comforting, and things to avoid.
Knowing what to say to those in grief may not help them feel better. However, your words and actions just might make a positive difference. Saying the right things might help you feel better, too.
Certain words and phrases should be avoided when expressing sympathy for those in grief.
Do not say anything that implies limits on the duration or intensity of grief. Grief is its own phenomenon, unique for each experiencer: it is messy, it happens in its own time and space, it can be mild as two weeks of sadness or as intense as an eternity of suffering. Grief can last for a lifetime, and that is okay. For who can speak for another’s loss and say just how it should be experienced?
Avoid catch phrases such as, “Time heals all.” First of all, such phrases sound contrived. Second, they are often untrue: for example, time does not necessarily heal grief. The bereaved have every right to grieve as long as necessary without having the trip laid on them of “getting over it.”
Never say to the bereaved, “I know how you feel.” You may think you know how they feel, because you too may have lost a beloved family member or friend, but actually, that was your experience of grief, not theirs. Each person grieves in his or her own way. Don’t make the conversation about yourself; keep it focused on their loss, not yours.
I have heard people say to those in deep grief that the death of a loved one “…is God’s will.” Just about nothing can upset a person in grief more than these words. When we lose those most precious to us, we may wonder why God could possibly allow their deaths. The idea that God would “take” someone to satisfy a whim is abominable. Whether or not you and/or the bereaved individual are religious, leave the topic of God out of expression of sympathy, unless the bereaved person brings it up; and if that is the case, you are on your own.
“You are doing so well” is another phrase to avoid. Do you live in that person’s head or heart? For all you know he or she may look okay but be contemplating suicide. Do not add expectations of “doing well” to those already so burdened with the loss of their loved ones that they may be feeling like death themselves. Don’t push your expectations on them; simply allow them their grief.
Do not say, “Be brave” or “Be strong.” Who cares about bravery when faced with such essential questions as, “my child is dead. Should I live or die?”
You might find yourself saying, “Others have lived through it and so can you.” This statement is possibly dangerous: someone who has just lost his or her beloved child, brother or sister, mother or father, grandparent, or best friend might feel so close to death already that he or she is pushed over the edge by being told they can “get through it.” Hopefully a choice of life will be the answer – but this is something with which someone must personally come to terms.
Avoid talking about “Stages of Grieving.” Elizabeth Kubler-Ross never meant for her “stages” theory to be taken as literally as it has in regard to bereavement, later writing that grief happens in its own time and fashion, and cannot always be neatly resolved. There are some great insights in Kubler-Ross’ work, but it just isn’t appropriate to saddle someone with the expectation that grief occurs in pre-defined stages, with an ultimate outcome of acceptance.
“Grieving is a process” also sounds absurdly cold and mechanical, and leaves no room for unexpected, spontaneous experiences of grief that do not conform to any preset theory, and may be surprisingly essential, somehow, in learning to live with one’s grief.
Be assurred, though: you can offer effective comfort to those in grief.
It’s often okay if the wrong words come out to a person suffering intense grief. Though he or she may be most vulnerable to indiscretions of sympathy in the early days of grief, most grieving individuals understand how hard it is for the rest of the world to be truly sympathetic. Most of them have been in your shoes at some point: they tend to cut slack to those who don’t know the right things to say. They tend to realize that you are trying your best, in your own way, to be helpful, and will accept the positive feeling behind the message.
So don’t struggle with your words. And if no words come out at all – just squeaks, perhaps – a hug or handshake can work wonders.
Sometimes, simple statements are the best. For example: “Margaret, I am so terribly sorry that Jim died, and I already miss him like crazy. I am sad for you, for the pain you may be feeling.”
Short, direct statements of support may be the easiest to swallow for those overwhelmed by loss and grief. Reflections on spirituality and philosophy may be too challenging and should be avoided until such time as the grieving person expresses an interest in these topics.
Basic statements expressing sorrow for the loss, accepting the grieving person’s sorrow, and offering support can be soothing.
Speak from the heart. A spontaneous expression of your own feelings, simply put, can provide genuine comfort. This may not seem an easy thing to do; it may seem impossible, especially if you do not share the bereaved person’s sorrow over his or her loss.
Here’s what to do. Look inside yourself to a time when you experienced a serious loss, and think about what you would have liked people to say to you – if anything. Remember how you felt when your loved one passed away. As you remember the hurt of your own loss, it will allow you – sometimes suddenly – to feel genuine sympathy for the person with whom you are trying to communicate. You won’t feel what the sufferer feels, for grieving is unique to each person, but the sense of loss in general, and the feeling of real sorrow, will help guide you toward authentic expressions of caring support. It will even be reflected in your body language and thus unconsciously – or consciously – communicated to the person in grief.
Do talk about the person who has died, if it seems appropriate. Often, family and friends of the bereaved are reluctant to mention the name of the deceased, either because they are afraid of bumming out the person in grief, or because it inconveniently reminds the person offering sympathy of his or her own mortality. But often, those who have lost a family member adore talking about them, and it hurts when their family and friends will not.
If the grieving person/family seems able to listen for a moment, consider offering to do whatever you reasonably can to help.
“Sid, Janet is going to watch the kids for you and I’ll take care of the lawn.”
You may offer support in a variety of ways – buying groceries, walking the dogs, making yourself available at any time for a call – but be prepared to back up what you say. Feel out the situation and try to determine what sort of realistic help to offer and/or provide.
While there are phrases that should be avoided when speaking with those in grief, there are certainly ways of offering sanctuary at that very moment and showing caring support. There are many resources available, not just for the bereaved, but for caregivers and support workers, and the general public.
For more information, and to learn how to offer Sanctuary Anywhere, please visit the Friends Along the Road website.